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The Journey from Novice to Expert

Some musings for those who aspire to better SCRABBLE®

Modified from a 1999 Internet series on Crossword Games Pro newsgroup, by Steve Pellinen (Minnesota, USA)

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - The Basics
One thing you must accept about this journey: you will never finish it. Even so, you can choose to get off the bus at any point, and get back on again if you want to go further. How far you travel is completely up to you, dependent on your own ambitions and limitations. Each of these chapters offers some perspectives I've gained on this trek, which I started seriously sometime around 1989. They're as much for me as for anyone since I still have improvement goals ahead of me, too, despite supposedly being an expert player.

Ah, there's the first rub. One person's expert is still another person's patsy. The player who reaches a 1000 rating will be nearly unbeatable in the living room context, rightly considered an expert by family and any remaining friends who still feel like playing. This homegrown expert then enters the harsh reality of club and tournament life where they face the daunting task of becoming a true expert, as measured against the best of the best.

A lot of effort must be made to get to 1600 or 1700, ratings generally considered expert level in North America. Yet to the 2000 player, 1600 is not much to be feared, despite the occasional annoying upset such a player is capable of turning. Same thing for the 1600 player who will lose occasionally to the 1200 player. Over the long haul, the better player will win more often. Ratings growth and tournament victories are there to be had for the improving player. At times it will seem like two steps forward, one step back (or worse). But if you work at your game, you will improve.

So, there are experts, and then there are Experts. And somewhere in between there are expErts like me who know what they have to do to become Experts. The process is similar for anyone who wants to improve their game. Studying words and strategy and practicing new skills are essential. However, the loftier your goals, the more refined your process must become. There is no magic. Everyone who is anyone in this game has traveled pretty much the same path.

Learn the two, three and most of the four letter words
Learn some common bingos (rack-clearing bonus plays)
Learn rack management and exchange strategy
Become proficient at tracking and using time
Learn basic endgame principles
Learn most of the vowel dumps and shorter JQXZ words
Get a good start on the five letter words
Develop anagram skills and techniques
Learn the rules and etiquette of tournament play

The player who achieves reasonable proficiency at most of the above will get to 1600 with a little work. It may take one year, it may take three years or more. You decide, by your effort and proclivities.
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Chapter 2 - Resources
There is some good reading available for aspiring experts, although some of it can be hard to find or obtain. My all-time favorite is Joel Wapnick's The Champion's Strategy ..., but Joe Edley's more recent book, Everything SCRABBLE®, covers much of the same ground and is available in bookstores. I used to read parts of Joel's book just before tournaments, to put me in the proper mindset. There are historical newsletters (JG Newsletter, Medleys, Matchups and others) which have good content, if you can find someone who saved their copies. My favorite is Medleys, edited by Nick Ballard, available in CD-ROM format from Joel Wapnick (together with his book). There is also the National SCRABBLE® Association's newsletter, published eight times a year for NSA members. A recent book, Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, is entertaining and gives aspiring players a glimpse of what they might be getting into.

While reading others' works is helpful, nothing beats doing your own. Make up your own lists, your own anamonics*, your own flashcards, your own mnemonic devices for remembering certain words. You will find you need to cover old ground periodically, and your own written materials help with that.

Make a list of study priorities to give some direction to what is inevitably a task plagued by the law of diminishing returns. Revise it, update it from time to time. Except perhaps for a few extremely gifted types, the road to expertdom gets steeper and steeper the farther you travel. All aspiring experts should be aware of this and prepare for it in their own best way. The principle is expressed in different ways in different contexts, but it goes something like this: you will accomplish about 80 percent of your task in 20 percent of the time. The remaining 20 percent never will be fully completed, but if you structure a program and follow through you might get close over the additional 80 percent of the time you have left.

For me, the rewards of studying were very apparent until I got to about an 1800 rating. From then on, I've realized that I have to do a whole lot of studying for fairly marginal returns. I have been unwilling/unable to work that level of effort into my life, but I know I could do it if I really wanted it. Age comes into play, and what was easy at 25 is a bit harder at 45 or 50. But since I intend to play until I'm 85 or so, I still have some time.

A list of resources for those who want to dive in is on the next page.

*anamonics are a mnemonic tool for remembering what letters, when added to particular six and seven letter combinations, form seven and eight letter words, earning the 50 point scoring bonus. For example, if you have the word WAITERS on your rack, but no place to play it, you can look for any of the letters in the phrase MEN THAT DESIRE TIPS somewhere on the board, possibly in a position to play through for an eight letter bonus play. WAITERS + M = WARTIMES, WAITERS + E = WASTERIE, WEARIEST, SWEATIER, etc.

Some SCRABBLE® resources:

  1. The Champion's Strategy for Winning at SCRABBLE®, Joel Wapnick Available on CD-ROM, together with all back issues of Medleys newsletter by Nick Ballard.
  2. Everything SCRABBLE®, 2nd ed., Joe Edley and John D. Williams, Jr.
  3. Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis. One player's journey, and some characters he met along the way.
  4. The National SCRABBLE® Association's official web site.
  5. The SCRABBLE® FAQ and other crossword game resources. A comprehensive web site maintained by Steven Alexander, a top expert.
  6. A top expert's web site. A bit out of the ordinary.
  7. A web site maintained by the webmistress of Crossword-Games-Pro newsgroup, a discussion and debate forum for tournament players worldwide.
  8. Another expert's web site, includes instructions for getting into one of the most popular on-line play sites for tournament-level players, MarlDOoM.
  9. Lexpert. The top computer-aided study tool for Windows PCs. A PDA version is also available.
  10. SCRABBLE® CD-ROM. Interactive play, at a high level. Maven is even better, if you can get hold of it. Both available for Windows and Macintosh.
  11. On-line play, various places. A web search, or some of the above web sites, can get you to the current locations.

Many other web sites are maintained worldwide. A little web exploration will get you there.
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Chapter 3 - Study
Making studying fun. I think there was a Fleetwood Mac song about that, which reminds me of a method I've thought about but haven't seriously tried. Someone has probably done this, but I've wondered if one could put lists of odd words to music, compose a ditty or even a real song using those words and thereby remember them forever. I intend to try this, but for now I'll mention some of the tried and true methods. I do have a chant that helps me remember all the odd four letter comparing adjectives ending in Y, but I didn't set it to music. Some players have written poems and stories with odd words, others have created mnemonic devices for remembering anything from the front hooks to AE to all the letters that form bingos with PSOATIC. Anything that draws on the associative powers of your mind can be effective.

If you're in a hurry to get your rating up, there are at least two ways to go. Some players simply study the dictionary. Read it, make notes, read it again, make more notes, read it again and again and again. Not very exciting, not much fun for most players, but straightforward and easy to do anywhere, anytime. If it works for you, go for it. One benefit from this approach is a more eclectic vocabulary. You may draw more challenges than the player who has studied the most probable words, which most experts tend to know. But you may not play as many bingos either, because the strangest words aren't the most probable. On the other hand, if you learn all the words, you may play more bingos.

The other way to improve fast (assuming you've attained reasonable mastery of the short words) is to go the probability route. Learn the bingos that arise from the most likely letter combinations. Much has been written and done to aid in this approach. The Word Book, The Blank Book, stem lists, anamonics, Video Flashcards, Lexpert and other tree-ware and software is out there for aspiring and continuing experts to assist in improving their game, and most of these resources make use of probability to prioritize the process. You will find, and play, more bingos if you focus your study on the ones most likely to appear in your games.

Then there is the task of learning to find anagrams quickly, since the words don't usually form themselves on your rack. Maximize what you can memorize, then use a consistent method for finding what you don't see immediately. Some players always put their letters on their racks alphabetically. Some put the vowels first. Some don't care if the tiles are sideways or upside down or in any order. Again, find what works best for you. Then put together prefixes, suffixes, common endings, etc. Don't forget to look for compound words, and don't be shy about shuffling the tiles on your rack. If nothing else it may give your opponent something to worry about, thinking you're about to find that triple-triple.

In the end, it's very hard to make studying fun and also efficient. Everyone makes tradeoffs, and everyone has to determine their own most effective method. The important thing is to have a method (if your goal is rapid improvement). Work some variety into your approach and it may be a little more fun. There's no getting around the fact that to get good, you've got to work hard. To get very, very good, you've got to work very, very hard. Bummer.
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Chapter 4 - A Few Secrets
Here are some secrets that experts don't want you to know. Of course, I'm not going to reveal all of them (I still want to be able to beat those of you who rise to the expert ranks). Some of these don't really apply to expert level play, but you will encounter them on your way up. They aren't in any particular order, and, as I implied, there are many more that could be mentioned.

1. Don't believe everything your opponent says with respect to their luck, their current letters, their game, their tendencies, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. This is good to remember at all levels, and applies to verbal as well as nonverbal language. Don't ignore valuable information, but don't be suckered, either. Duping strategies rarely work, and are rarely tried, at the top levels of play, but somewhere along the line you'll get fooled by someone's comment, sigh, groan, etc.

2. Watch out for phony opening plays, especially the 5-6 letter variety. This is rare, but sometimes your opponent is testing you - your willingness to challenge, your word knowledge, etc. Or they don't really mind if you challenge their play off because they're sitting with RETINAO and know they've got better than half a chance to bingo through any play you make. Of course, their opening play may give you a juicy opening as well, so then you have to decide whether to use it or challenge. If you challenge off an opening play, consider exchanging to improve your own situation since you know your opponent isn't going to do anything great.

3. Your opponents don't want you to know the three letter front extensions to five letter words. Five letter opening plays beginning at 8d are fairly common (you should learn the board nomenclature conventions; columns are A-O left to right, rows are 1-15 top to bottom). You want to know that QUEAN takes COT in front, or ZOONS can be extended with MAD and MAT. Experts want these easy 50-60 point TWS plays for themselves.

4. When you have both blanks on your rack, don't automatically play one of the zillion 60 point bingos available to you. Look first to see if you have a 30 or 40 point play using just one of the blanks. Depending on strategic considerations, it may be worth splitting the blanks. Even with one blank it may be better to pass up a bingo in favor of a high scoring alternate play. Usually I will play the blank if it nets me around 25 points more than the next best play, but there are times to deviate from this.

5. Near the end of a game in which you hold a lead, consider passing instead of playing. Again, relatively rare, but there are times when the best play is no play. It's an easy choice to pass if by playing and drawing the Q you are certain to lose. There are similar situations with other letters, or you may need your opponent to play off a particular letter to give you a shot at winning. In this situation, remember that six consecutive scoreless plays ends the game, so if your rack has too many more points than your opponent you might discover another way to lose.

6. Don't always block lucrative openings. If you can't make good use of the one that's there, see if you can create another opening elsewhere. That way, if your opponent uses one, you get the other (maybe). You need to consider the tile pool and what you retain on your rack.

7. SCRABBLE® is a very mathematical game. The more you understand the math, the better decisions you can make. Start with understanding the relative value of each of the letters, alone and in combination. Keep track of what is played, what is left, the geometry of the board, etc. Develop at least a basic understanding of probability, and what your chances are in particular situations. Don't simply hope for the best, have an idea of what is most likely.

8. Going over on time isn't always the end of the world. Avoid it if you can, get better at playing faster early in the game, but don't panic near game's end by making stupid blunders just to avoid time penalties. This isn't chess-- here, time only cripples, it doesn't kill. If by going overtime you find a winning bingo or other play, it's time well spent. But don't do what I once did. I went 11 minutes overtime not finding what turned out to be a fairly common word. Had I found it 8 minutes into overtime, I still would have won. Never mind that I could have won easily by going out in two turns before time expired, instead of looking for a bingo.
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Chapter 5 - Perfection Still Includes Luck
Word knowledge, strategy, ability to anagram, intangibles, luck--the basic elements of our game. How much of the whole is each part? Opinions differ, and the answer is different for each player to some extent. For me, at this point in time, I put it approximately as follows (don't ask me to define exactly what the percentages are measuring - this isn't meant to be looked at rigorously, rather, consider it quantitative assessment of qualitative components):

The State of My Game
40% Strategy
30% Word knowledge
15% Luck
10% Ability to anagram
5% Intangibles

The percentage breakdown represents my estimate/evaluation of my game right now, a picture of the components that make up my game. It points to what I need to work on most to improve my game as I compare it to perfection. My picture of the perfect player looks like this:

The Ultimate Player
35% Strategy
50% Word knowledge
15% Luck
0% Ability to anagram
0% Intangibles

Some explanations are needed.

Strategy: rack management, turnover, board vision, positional play, grasp of probabilities, time management, tracking, endgame, etc.

Word knowledge: What you know, broken down by length or category of word.

Luck: The letters you, and your opponent, draw, and when, in what combinations. When you get something can be as important as what you get, and both are largely (but not completely) out of your control. Timing is everything, as they say.

Ability to anagram: How quickly you find the words you know.

Intangibles: Confidence, equanimity, focus, endurance, intuition, etc.

The perfect player has taken anagramming and intangibles entirely out of the equation. They find everything they know, and nothing bothers or distracts them. Perfect word knowledge is half of their game, they can't do anything about the luck factor, and they have perfected their strategic grasp of the game in all situations and positions. This player doesnĦt exist, but you can try to become the first.

Looking at my numbers, I can describe myself as usually able to find the words I know, not bothered by much, and needing to improve my word knowledge more than my strategic grasp of the game (but needing to improve that as well). Looked at another way, because of my lack of word knowledge, I'm forced to rely too much on my strategic skills to win, when sometimes simply knowing a word would do the job. Still, your goal should always be to play the best strategic game possible, whatever gaps exist in your word knowledge. You can pull out some games you have no right to win in this way.

You can use your own numbers, maybe even change the categories. The proportions will change over time for you as you work on your game, and they can give you some sense of what you should be working on if you don't already know by the results you're seeing in competition.

The other thing you should do is see what mistakes, or what weaknesses, keep cropping up as you play. Are you losing games because you forget some three-letter words? Do you keep getting into time trouble? Are you consistently out-bingoed by your opponents? Whatever you notice, work on it so that it isn't such a problem.
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Chapter 6 - A Few Good Habits

Back to some practical things you can use or lose as you see fit. Aspiring experts invariably settle into a set of habits, a style of play that suits them. But it's always worth taking a look at your game and seeing if you can improve on that style in some way.

Consistently accurate tile tracking is harder for some than for others. Those who know me know that I like to, shall we say, use up all of my time (and occasionally, more than my time). Apart from the imperative to play more expeditiously, it is essential that I not waste time with inaccurate tracking. It takes two or three minutes to retrack a game near the end; if you find yourself needing to do this often then perhaps you should delay tracking anything until towards the end of the game. However, tracking can be surprisingly useful very early in some games.

Early on I got into the habit of putting a checkmark on my scoresheet after each turn that I tracked off. Now, instead of a checkmark, I mark the cumulative number of tiles played by each player's score. It doesn't take any more time, it gives me additional information during the game and sometimes helps in overall analyses. The checkmark approach also makes it easy to track when it's convenient for you. You can choose to skip a few turns and go back at any point to pick up where you left off. This is especially true if you write down all plays as you go. (Many experts don't write down plays, or even turn scores; the cumulative total is the only requirement. This saves time, but makes it harder to double check scoring errors or recounts or do postgame analyses).

You should get into the habit of counting your opponent's score for each turn. This also takes time, but everyone makes scoring errors, and some players are notorious for this. I have been a game recorder at several tournaments, and I am no longer surprised at how many top players make scoring mistakes. It's part of the territory, and crucial decisions in the endgame depend on accurate scoring. Check the cumulative score with your opponent periodically if you wish, but remember that this should only be done on your time. Don't go to the extreme of an audible check of the score after each turn, since that means half the time you are interrupting your opponent on their time. That is not allowed by current rules. At most, you should state the score at the beginning or end of your own turn, while the clock is running on your time. Most experts find it sufficient to confirm scores a few times during the game, especially towards the end of close games.

I sometimes write down all my racks every game, but I don't advise this unless you intend to do postgame analysis. It takes time and you may inadvertently give information away to prying eyes. Still, it's a good practice if you want to better understand your game and analyze it with another player or do computer analysis at another time.

It's probably a good idea not to let your opponent know any habits or quirks that annoy you. Such knowledge is useful only to them, unless you know them well enough to be comfortable with suggesting they stop doing something. Different habits annoy different players, but among the most popular are the aforementioned constant score checking, dumping your rackful of tiles on the board for a bingo, griping and moaning of any sort, counting a score with your hand over the board or counting out loud, starting (or stopping) the clock too quickly in any number of situations, and, the only thing that annoys me, playing two or more bingos back to back.
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Chapter 7 - Mastering Strategy

Here's a short but time-consuming list of what you can do to improve your strategic grasp of the game.

1. Play better players. Sure, you'll get thumped, but you'll learn a lot more and improve a lot faster than you will by beating up on those rated below you.

2. Record your games and analyze them with computer aids. Don't get depressed, but rather be impressed at how many plays the computer suggests that you didn't consider, know, see, etc. Even the very best players don't make the best play on every turn in every game, perhaps any game. You might be surprised how infrequently the best players play a perfect game. Happens about as often as in baseball. For most, it never happens.

3. Find an expert or two to analyze games. It doesn't have to be a top 10 player - some great strategists exist at less than 2000, at less than 1900, at less than 1800 (not so sure about less than 1700, unless Paul Avrin gets there from time to time--he's an example of someone who has as good a strategic grasp on the game as anyone).

4. Study annotated games, where a game is replayed and critiqued, turn by turn. The commentary, provided by experts, can be eye-opening, although somewhat dry. I have to confess that I most enjoy those annotations that inject humor and anecdotal asides by the players actually involved in the games.

5. Study endgames. Something on the order of 10 percent of my games with peers are decided by 10 or fewer points. I'd better know how to play out in two turns, not to mention playing them in the right order.

6. Study simulations, if you have the equipment. Otherwise, pay attention to those discussions about simulations. Don't take them as infallible indicators of best plays, but do regard them as the best thing since sliced bread.

7. Participate in consensus games (newsletters or on-line, with many players exchanging views about possible plays each turn). These are like annotated games, only slower but with a wider range of thought.

8. Play consultation (partner) games. You get immediate feedback on your thought process, and there's often good postgame discussion from both sides. Just do it with someone with whom you can agree to disagree.

9. Play faster early. I mean, come on, Steve - you just spent six minutes on your second turn and made an 8-point play? Play faster if you want No. 5 above to be relevant. You want 5-10 minutes for the endgame.

10. Learn the relative value of each of the 26 letters, alone and in combination with other letters. Learn how these values change as the game progresses, as more letters are played and the remaining distribution changes.

11. Learn from your mistakes. And get over them (before your next play, if possible), because you'll continue to make mistakes no matter how good you get. Just avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
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Chapter 8 - Difficult Deeds

Some things are difficult to do, but either you learn the hard way or you convince yourself that they are in fact in your best interests if you are serious about becoming an expert. I have a short list of these difficult deeds. Some of these are among the more troublesome aspects of the game to understand.

1. When to play riskily. Whenever it's on your rack; at other times, it's more situational. As a tournament progresses, you need to pay some attention to your standing and spread (there are times to simply cut your losses), but generally you need to take more chances the more a game is slipping away. You need to create bingo openings more than X or J setups, because the latter are usually too obvious and easy to deal with. Play to the triple-word lines fearlessly, even if you're not behind early, because this often is surprisingly better than a fifty-fifty proposition. To budding experts it can be unnerving, but go ahead and try it. You'll be surprised at how often your opponent can't take good advantage of it, or even feels compelled to ruin their rack balance to block it for you. If you can, create multiple or unblockable openings, sometimes called "forking the board."

2. When to exchange and when to try to play out of messy racks. I have a lot of trouble with this, but I suspect as one's word knowledge increases this becomes a bit easier. Learn the vowel dumps, all the way up to the five-vowel and six-vowel bingos. And don't labor under the misapprehension that scoring anything is better than scoring nothing. Often an exchange can do wonders to turn a game around. If itĦs going to take two or more plays to clean up your rack, why not try to fix it at once?

3. When to exchange good tiles. I played a game recently against my favorite opponent. Eight turns into the game I held a fifty point lead, with five of the seven remaining power tiles (JQXZSSSS??) on my rack. Four turns later I'm staring at a 180 point loss. Holding SSSQZPG, with two blanks and 1:3 vowel/consonant ratio unseen and an S-unfriendly board, I should have exchanged for balance, including considering giving up the Z and an S or two (besides the more obvious QPG). It's hard to throw good tiles back, but too much of a good thing isn't doing you any good. Besides, you have almost as good a chance as your opponent to get some of these tiles back later.

4. What to do when the consonant/vowel ratio suddenly seems to have been reversed. And a corollary; what to do when the laws of probability no longer seem to apply. Um, well, you just have to learn to live with unlikely, improbable and just plain unlucky events. A player I know was in contention to win the prestigious Atlantic City tourney a few years ago. By his reckoning, two consecutive 1000:1 unlikely events happened in his last game, meaning that he figured he lost the tournament on a one in a million unlucky sequence of events. He was seated post-tourney at the equipment sale table with a hand-scrawled "For Sale, Cheap" sign on his clock. Said he was giving up the game, he couldn't deal with such unfairness.

5. When to review what you supposedly already know. I challenged, unsuccessfully, a three letter word at a recent tournament. It's time for me to review the threes. Pay attention to what is giving you trouble in any given tourney and work on it later. Review is a necessary part of the game. Knowing lots of eight letter words is great; forgetting the threes and fours is embarrassing and costly. Something like 75 percent of all words played, even at expert level, are four or fewer letters in length. It pays to know more of the words that will be played, not that might be played.

6. When to go to sleep and when to carouse into the wee hours. Everyone is different, of course, but if you're in contention you don't hurt your chances by getting a good night's sleep. Playing competitive SCRABBLE® is not unlike taking final exams in school. Do what you know is good for your mental sharpness.
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Sometimes as I leave for a new tournament, I'm reminded of milestones. In 1989 I made my first foray away from the Twin Cities into the national tournament circuit. I finished second in Division D at the Smoky Mountain Tournament and was firmly set in my resolve to move up.

That same year I played in my first National SCRABBLE® Championship and haven't missed one since. Two years later I won my first expert tournament. It took me three years to become a winning expert (although I had some previous experience which helped a bit). Some have risen faster and farther, some more slowly and some never get there. Some of that has to do with natural ability and talent, but I'm convinced that any reasonably intelligent person can become an expert SCRABBLE® player if they are sufficiently motivated and actually work at it.

Heck, I'm convinced I could be a national champion if I take all my own advice to heart.

Steve Pellinen, 1999
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